It’s hard to predict where inspiration will strike, but studies have shown there’s a relationship between location and ideas—at least insofar as relaxing places, like the shower, tend to make you more creative than the boardroom. Is it any wonder that Alexander Graham Bell came up with his idea for the telephone in the beautiful dale near his family’s home that he called his “dreaming place?”
While it’s possible you might not come up with any world-changing ideas while visiting the homes of America’s greatest inventors, there’s a special feeling to be found looking at the places where they ate, slept, worked—and most importantly—imagined. Lucky for us, many of the homes of the nation’s most prolific scientific and technical geniuses have been preserved for the public. (Not all are located in the United States, however—“American” here refers to citizenship alone, and many inventors traveled). These are places filled with both everyday and technical artifacts that tell the larger stories behind inventions that changed the world.
At the newly opened Innovation Wing of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, visitors can explore the workstation of video game inventor Ralph Baer. The museum recreated Baer’s office, placing every book, tool, microchip and doodad in the same spot it was located in his Manchester, New Hampshire, home. But for many other inventors, you can see workshops and other spots of inspiration in their original locales. Here is just a sampling:
Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, New Jersey
Although Thomas Edison first earned fame as "The Wizard of Menlo Park," New Jersey, today his largest lab complex, where he worked for more than 40 years, is preserved in West Orange (his Menlo Park lab has been recreated in Dearborn, Michigan). There, Edison and roughly 100 scientists and technicians perfected the phonograph (an invention Edison loved so much he called it his "baby"), worked on a nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery and filmed early silent films inside the world’s first movie studio—nicknamed the Black Maria after the large black police wagons of the day. Visitors to the 20,000-square-foot laboratory complex can tour Edison’s office, research library, machine shop and a variety of other buildings packed with the inventor’s tools, machines and products. Even the Black Maria still stands in a courtyard.
A short drive away but still within the park, Edison’s Glenmont Estate is also open for tours. Edison and his second wife Mina moved into the 29-room, Queen Anne-style mansion after their marriage in 1886, going on to raise six children there. Mina reportedly considered herself a “Home Executive,” running the household with the same precision Edison devoted to his inventions, and hosting formal dinners for guests such as Orville Wright, Henry Ford, Helen Keller and the King of Siam. Their antiques-filled estate reflects then-contemporary ideas about state-of-the–art housing; when it was built, the home was notable for having hot and cold running water, central heating, refrigeration and electricity. Visitors can tour the house, its lush gardens, working greenhouse and—more poignantly—visit the graves of Mina and Thomas, buried side-by-side in a simple plot behind their home.